Despite the president having dropped charges against Zapiro at the 11th hour of a multi-million-rand law suit, Glenda Daniels asks how appropriate it is for a president to even consider suing a cartoonist.
President Jacob Zuma sued Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) for harm to dignity and damage to reputation for his ‘Rape of Lady Justice’ cartoon, which was published in the Sunday Times in September 2008.
Within a week of the trial commencing at the end of October, the president dropped the dignity claim and reduced the original
R5 million to R400 000 for defamation and the inclusion of an unconditional apology. Finally, the day before they were due in court, Zuma dropped all charges, offering to pay half the legal bill.
This raised the hope that he would do the logical thing and drop all the other pending claims he has against the media, in all about 10 cases totalling approximately R50 million.
The president has a penchant for suing. Between 2006 and 2010, he instituted court action in 15 cases, suing eight newspapers, a radio station, two cartoonists, a columnist, op-ed writers and journalists – an average of nearly four lawsuits a year, according to media law expert, Dario Milo, a partner at Webber Wentzel. The claims, Milo says, “are not about news stories that the president regards as inaccurate, but rather concern criticism of his conduct”.
The lawsuits are inappropriate and if you shut down a voice of robust criticism you are closing down free spaces in democracy.
Zapiro suffered indignity through the ideological name-calling by Zuma supporters: “enemy”, “right-winger”, “racist”. This, coupled with the lawsuit that hung over him, caused him stress.
Freedom of expression provides for a balancing of rights: between free speech, free media and rights to equality, respect and dignity. Ironically, Zapiro has shown signs of respect for Zuma. He had depicted Zuma with a showerhead after Zuma said he took a shower after having sex with an HIV-positive woman. But, once Zuma became president and there appeared to be widespread support for him, Zapiro removed the showerhead, giving the president the benefit of the doubt. He then reinserted it when it emerged that the already polygamous Zuma had fathered another child out of wedlock. Today the ‘Shawara’ song (a song insulting President Zuma with the words translated as “the showerman is giving us a hard time”) is part of the national discourse and is sung by ANC members looking for a change of leadership.
After this cartoon was published, Zapiro was called a “right-winger” by Jessie Duarte, then ANC spokesperson, and a “racist” by Baleka Mbete, then deputy president of the ANC, and Julius Malema, former leader of the ANC Youth League. This name-calling took place outside the court after Zuma was acquitted of rape charges.
Zapiro’s image was deliberately ambiguous and layered, it alluded to rape, both the alleged rape of an HIV-positive woman and the potential rape of justice. The justice system is depicted by a woman (she looks black to me, although Zuma supporters said the cartoon was about black men raping white women), powerless, held down by powerful political forces assisting Zuma.
The layer of meanings include: the attack on the judiciary, the potential rape of justice, the alleged rape and showering after sex, and the undying support for Zuma by the alliance partners, at that time.
For Zapiro, the issue raised the essential question of “cartoonist as watchdog, not lapdog”. A Mail & Guardian editorial (12-18 September 2008) asserted there was ignorance about the role of the cartoon in modern democratic societies, such as South Africa: “Cartoonists are the court jesters who make us laugh and then cry when we realise that what’s been drawn is often the fundamental truth or a portent of what might come to pass if we are not vigilant. The cartoon is a sacred space and believing in media freedom is not a tap you can switch on and off… the greater the freedom of the cartoonist, the higher the democratic quotient of a society.”
An interview I conducted with Zapiro in 2009 revealed suffering, rather than laughter. “Politics have changed. My principles have not changed. I’m still very much for progressive values. I’m railing against inconsistencies and contradictions.
“I will defend the cartoon. I have no doubt I will win. I have my integrity intact. There is a huge contradiction in freedom of speech on the one hand, and those law suits against media institutions on the other. He is the president now. I don’t want to see the country go down the tubes. I want to see the country succeed. I suspended the shower when he became president.
“The role of the cartoonist is to knock the high and mighty off their pedestals. To be irreverent; to be a sceptic and not to be sycophantic; cartoons can be powerful and not all are funny. The Lady Justice one was very serious.”
Zapiro reflected on his creative process. “I always go through a lot of angst. There is a fair amount of self-doubt. Am I hitting the right note? I would say that it is has been a decade and a half of enormous press freedom.”
Zapiro’s discourse is within the ambit of democracy. It is not hate speech supporting violence. A fellow cartoonist and friend of Zapiro’s, Andy Mason, reflected: “’Othering’ is what cartoonists do. Zapiro mercilessly and brilliantly satirised Zuma, and got positive feedback. Zuma became president of us all. In that context, Zapiro didn’t want to diss him and his country, he’s proudly South African, so he removed the showerhead. For the first time Zuma was seen in a human light. This is the genius of Zapiro, this temporary suspension. It was a brilliant strategic move.”
Zuma’s strategic move to back down was a good move. It is a victory for freedom of expression and media freedom.
Some of Glenda Daniel’s reflections on democracy, freedom of expression and the case of Zapiro and Zuma:
Unity in society and shutting off dissenting spaces stunts democracy and the free flow of ideas;
Heterogenity of views supports the growth and deepening of democracy;
Freedom of expression cannot exist without democracy, and democracy cannot exist without freedom of expression;
Zapiro’s radical “otherness” needs to be absorbed and appreciated;
It is inappropriate and unfair for powerful figures such as presidents to sue cartoonists;
There is no freedom of expression line; if in doubt err on the side of freedom especially if racism, hate, sexism and violence are not involved;
Politicians must be robust enough to take the heat;
Zapiro is a legitimate adversary in a democracy;
To construct him as an enemy, racist, right-winger is to put into jeopardy the open-endedness required for the sustenance of democracy; and
Sueing a cartoonist can render our democracy even more fragile than it already is.
This is an adapted extract from Glenda Daniel’s recently released book, ‘Fight for Democracy: The ANC and the Media in SA’, now available in bookstores. Daniels is a senior researcher at the Wits School of Journalism, heading the State of the Newsroom project.
This story was first published in the December 2012 issue of The Media magazine.